Thursday, November 2, 2006

The Holy Chutzpah of Abraham

It’s a crisp autumn morning and Avram is minding his own business, enjoying a coffee and perusing the Mesopotamia Times on a park bench. Suddenly he hears a voice:

"Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you." (Bereishit 12:1-3)

Who is this Avram and why does G-d like him so much? While the Torah is mute on Avram’s early life, a rich oral history of our patriarch’s personal development is extant and it is recorded in the Midrash. It seems that Avram’s father, Terach, owned an idol shop.

I can just see it.

Terach’s God Shop. New & used. Repairs. We buy your gods, any condition! Top prices paid!

Anyhow, one weekend Terach has to attend a convention in Vegas, and he puts his boy Avram in charge while he’s away. Bad idea. As soon as his father leaves town, Avram picks up an axe and smashes every idol in the store. He destroys the entire inventory, except for the one largest statue. In its hand, he places the axe.

When Terach returns home and sees his shop, he asks his son in a quiet, tremulous voice, “Avram, What happened here?” Quite matter-of-factly, Avram explains that the gods got into a fight. “That big guy in the corner just pulverized everybody. It was terrible…”

“Avram, you know that these idols don’t fight. They can’t even move.”

Avram had scored his point. “If they can’t do anything, why do you worship them?” (cf. Bereishit Rabba 38)

You have to admit that the kid has chutzpah. The original Jewish personality is a radical and a maverick. He rejects his upbringing and doesn’t care much for conventional thinking or cultural norms. Avram is prepared to sacrifice everything for truth – and he does not lose this quality with age.

Years later, when his nephew Lot is taken captive, Avram goes to war against four kings, ultimately conquering a territory originally ruled by nine kings! (Bereishit 14:14) Talk about chutzpah!

[Avram returns all the land to its owners and reinstates the original kings (14:21-23). Power does not interest him, he just wants to free his nephew from captivity.]

It is in the context of this war that our parsha grants him the title, “Avram Haivri,” “Avram the Contrarian” (14:13). As Rabbi Yehuda explains in the Midrash, “the entire world was on one side and he was on the other” (Bereishit Rabba 42). This was the defining characteristic of Avram's personality.

While Avram utilizes chutzpah in his disregard for contemporary thinking, before G-d he is the archetype of submissiveness. When he prays for the inhabitants of Sodom, he repeatedly humbles himself: “I have already said too much before the Lord. I am mere dust and ashes…” (Bereishit 18:27,31). Of course, the ultimate example of Avraham’s submissiveness is his willingness sacrifice his own son when G-d orders him to do so. But yet, in both of these incidents Avraham's contrarian nature manages to express itself. He's consistantly unpredictable.

It takes a great deal of chutzpah to stand up against society, smash the idols of the day and wage a war to save a fellow Jew. It takes guts to pray for the wicked and it takes a contrarian to sacrifice for G-d. But this was our father Avraham then and this must also be the Jew of today. It’s the reason we were chosen in the first place.

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